Taos' Noche de Altares brings Mexican tradition, NM history together - Albuquerque Journal

Taos’ Noche de Altares brings Mexican tradition, NM history together

Any big event has to start somewhere, so reasoned Carmen Medrano.

Medrano has organized the first Noche de Altares, set for Oct. 29 within the John Dunn Shops between the Taos Plaza and Bent Street.

A seven-level altar featuring saints, candles for each dearly departed, salt to purify the soul after a long travel/items they once owned or reminders of them, pan muerto, foods and drinks the departed liked, photographs, sugar skulls representing each dearly departed, crucifix and rosary. (Courtesy of Carmen Medrano)

Also known as the Night of Altars, it is a cultural experience that brings Mexican tradition and identity to the fore as part of the Día de los Muertos.

People are invited to build an altar for lost family members and friends, honoring them, remembering them and lighting a path for their brief return, said Medrano, 39.

“I’m a first generation Mexican American but my husband is a Taoseño and I’m raising two Taoseños myself,” she said.

But a lot of traditional culture get lost when integrating into the U.S., Medrano said, and she wants to try and preserve some of that.

“Being a first generation Mexican American, your parents want the best for you and they think the best thing for you is assimilation,” she said. “They don’t want you to have the burden of being different.”

The smell of cempasuchil helps souls find their way to their family. La Catrina skull with the flower crown represents rich or poor we all end up in the same place. The Jaguar Whistle was given to me by my dear friend Linda who has passed. The Virgin Tile was owned by my grandmother. The rattle is for the children who have passed. The tea cup representing drinking tea with my grandmother. The mezcal is to take a shot to celebrate their life. (Courtesy of Carmen Medrano)

As a matter of fact, Medrano’s mother would go out of her way to hand-make stunning costumes for Halloween.

“Some of that assimilation comes with the cost of losing who you are,” she said. “Because of that, I learned a lot about New Mexico history. It is something that is very deep-rooted. There’s so much death here. So much conquest and so many forgotten things.

When Medrano’s grandmother died about 10 years ago, she lit candles as called for under Catholic tradition, but there was this feeling that something was missing, she said.

“We had this feeling that there was this part of her that needed to be celebrated,” Medrano said. “Her mother needed to be celebrated. So my mom and I started to create altares for Día de (los) Muertos. We’d make molé and other traditional Mexican food and we’d tell stories. It’s something that we’ve been doing for the last 10 years.”

Given New Mexico’s multi-cultural heritage, she said, it just made sense to expand the celebration beyond her family, welcoming all local resident and visitors who might happen to wander past.

“We’re not expecting it to be anything grand or huge,” Medrano said. “It’s the first year, so we’re just hoping to have it become something, but right now we don’t know how the community is going to be.”

Still, Medrano and a few other organizers knew they if they wanted to get it going, it had to start somewhere.

“We just wanted to get together, create some altars and represent what Día de los Muertos is about,” Medrano said. “I think some traditions have been lost in this area. … The day is not just a day of costumes. I think sometimes things get overlooked.”

The festivities will include music, dancers and plenty of mingling, as people are encouraged talk about the altares, ask questions and have a good time, she said.

“It’s fun and exciting and the party is there and supposed to be there but let’s not forget the root of why we’re celebrating,” Medrano said. “It’s a great way to show this is our culture. That culture is who we are and it’s a good way to represent who we are.”

Calaveras de Azucar, a 3000 year tradition where you decorate a skull that represents each dearly departed with their name on the forehead. (Courtesy of Carmen Medrano)

Medrano said she plans to display a seven-level altar that will include an homage to her grandmother, including a traditional sugar skull.

“It’s a 3,000-year-old tradition where you decorate a skull that represents each dearly departed, with their name on the forehead,” she explained. “The idea is for people to walk by and if they have questions, that individual can talk about it and say what they have to say. Every altar is unique to each individual. There’s no wrong way or right way to do this.”


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